The 68th Cannes Film Festival officially opened tonight with the red carpet premiere of Standing Tall (Le tete haute)a stirring drama about the juvenile justice system as seen through the experiences of one kid from age 6 to 18. French legend Catherine Deneuve co-stars and ascended the Ppete hammond badgealais steps with the rest of cast including knockout newcomer Rod Paradot as the boy and Benoit Magimel. The director of the film, which might be called the darker side of Boyhood, is a woman. Now that might not sound so astounding, but Emmanuelle Bercot is only the second woman to stroll those famous steps as the helmer of the glamorous Cannes opening-night attraction. Initially the fest announced she would be the first but quickly were reminded Diane Kurys had the honor in 1987.

In recent yearsImage (1) Cannes_logoblue__120523023418.jpg for post 680350 the festival has been criticized for not having more female directors as part of its Official Selection, so it seems that Cannes and fest honcho Thierry Fremaux are bending over backward to rectify that situation. Not only was Bercot invited to open the party (in an out of competition slot), there are two other female directors — Maiwenn and Valerie Donzelli — with films that are competing for the prized Palme d’Or this year in what often is an all-boys club. Last year’s Jury President, Jane Campion, was the only previous female winner of that top award for 1993’s The Piano. Add to that four other female directors competing in the companion selection, Un Certain Regard, as well as debuting director Natalie Portman with another out of competition entry, A Tale Of Love And Darkness, and you have a pretty impressive Cannes lineup for women — finally. Let’s hope it is the start of a trend and not just an abberation.

68th Cannes Film Festival - La Tete Haute (Standing Tall) photocallI saw Standing Tall at its first press screening this morning and could tell this film was a serious choice to open Cannes and actually could have played in competition, unlike many opening-night movies with a spotty record of quality that are chosen for flashier reasons. The film originally was planned for September but instead was moved up to May 13 for a wide French release to coincide with the bonanza of publicity from this premiere. Cannes is second only to the Oscars — and probably not even second — in its ability to generate worldwide attention. I am told that even the filmmakers were surprised by the choice, especially since it meant another much higher-profile movie, Mad Max: Fury Road, which easily fits the bill for a Cannes opening night, instead would be slotted for Thursday when stars Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron make the scene. That movie,  taking full advantage of all the attendant publicity Cannes can offer, is also out of competition.

That’s not surprising since it’s rare a Cannes pete 2Mad Max style of kick-ass action movie (despite how great this George Miller-directed reboot is) would be considered a prime candidate for the kind of art house fare that usually appeals to this festival’s esteemed juries. In fact that question was asked of Jury Presidents Joel Coen and Ethan Coen when they, along with fellow Jury members Jake Gyllenhaal, Sienna Miller, Rokia Traore, Guillermo Del Toro, Xavier Dolan, Rossy De Palma and Sophie Marceau, met the press earlier Wednesday. It’a a natural question, but the answer is obvious. Although popular eventual box office hits have won the Palme d’Or in the past, like Pulp Fiction to name one, more often than not the ultimate results are closer to last year when a 3 1/2-hour-ish — and aptly named — Turkish talkfest called Winter Sleep did the trick. Joel Coen deflected the question but did point out that an action-filled martial arts movie, The Assassin from Cannes-regular director Hou Hsiao-Hsien is competing this year. So there. 

By the way, the lineup this year is heavy on English-language movies for a change. There are eight of them, but interestingly most are directed by foreign names such as Paolo Sorrentino and Yorgos Lanthimmos but are populated with popular stars ranging from Colin Farrell and Michael Caine to Jane Fonda and Rachel Weisz. This year is quite star-heavy and will include new films from 2013 Best Actor and Actress Oscar winners, Matthew McConaughey and Cate Blanchett.

There are 19 films vying in the main competition, which gets underway with the official premieres Thursday of Japanese director Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary) and Italian auteur Matteo Garrone’s wild and fun entry, Tale Of Tales (Il Racconto Dei RTale-of-Tales-Movie-Reviewacconti). Both directors are well known on the Croisette as they are each past winners of some prizes here. Kore-Eda won the Jury Prize a couple of years ago for his wonderful Like Father, Like Son, which then-Jury President Steven Spielberg liked so much he picked up the American remake rights.

Garrone comes back to Cannes for a third time as the past winner twice of the Grand Prize (second place) for both previous visits with Gomorra ( 2008) and Reality (2012). Can he move up one prize to the Palme d’Or this year for his first-ever English Language picture, which has a terrific international cast including Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassell, Toby Jones and John C. Reilly and two fantastic “witches” (aka old sisters) played to the hilt by Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael.

As the first two competition films both were shown to press Wednesday, and though Kore-Eda’s follow-up to his 2013 Cannes success is a lyrical and exceptionally sweet look at the relationship of four sisters, it was dwarfed in my opinion by Garrone’s wild ride, which with its ogres and giants and kings and queens and princesses and castles and witches is a brilliant grim fairy tale based loosely on Giambattista Bisile’s Neopolitan Tale Of Tales. It’s beautifully shot and designed, with another great score from Alexandre Desplat and kept this still-jet-lagged viewer wide awake for its two-hour-plus running time.

Garrone’s vivid film entertainment recalls bits of Fellini, Pasolini and even Rob Marshall (if you throw in some comparisons to Into The Woods). It gets Thursday’s late-night 10:30 PM spot following Mad Max: Fury Road, and that makes for one hell of a double feature — Cannes style. This is the only black-tie red carpet in the world where they regularly do it all twice a night and sometimes even more.

No matter what time it premieres, I can think of at least one of these jurors who ought to flip for Tale Of Tales. It is right up Del Toro’s alley to be sure, and it will be interesting to see how this disparate jury makes a choice under the leadership of the Coens, the first Jury co-Presidents in Cannes history. But don’t expect even them to walk in lockstep on everything. When asked if they are as compatible watching movies as they are making them, Joel Coen said he had no idea and never talks about what Ethan likes or sees. One thing they both agreed on immediately was when asked about their TV habits. Neither one ever watches the tube. So don’t expect them to be making any deals with Netflix soon. “I may have gotten into trouble here saying that because my wife (Frances McDormand) just did a miniseries for HBO,” joked Joel.

cannes pete 3But Gyllenhaal might have had the best line about the whole experience and why he wanted the Jury gig. “I am just thrilled to see films before anyone else in the world sees them – and for free.” 

Now, that’s Cannes.